Archive for trenches


Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2020 by xi'an

While in Chamonix, last week, I went to see a film for the first time in many months (as the latest installment of Star Wars does not count!).  As it happened, there was a English version of 1917 (and the theatre was full of English speaking spectators, in this most British of French Alpine towns!). I had no prior opinion about the film, for once, having missed my national public radio cinema critic show. The setting was rather impressive at the beginning with the crossing of the deserted “no-man’s-land” between bomb holes and decomposed cadavres, in a constant rush to save thousands from a planned massacre, but then the story stalls into an allegory that becomes almost cartoonesque, from the cut orchards to the plane running into their barn, to the eerie lighting of the ruins, to the episode with the refugee, to the fall in the river and the sad Wayfaring Stranger song (which made me think of the dwarven song in the Hobbit!) and to the anti-climactic reaction of Benedict Cumberbatch. By making the fate of so many depends on the unrealistic bravery of a single man, Mendes’ film may point out (rather cheaply) at the absurdity of it all. But it also contributes to perpetuate the myth of the hero, arriving against all odds (and then some) to save them all (if at the 13th hour). Granted, the film is effective and I was on the verge of tears by its ending, when the brother receives the bad news, but by focussing on the most unrepresentative soldier of the whole front, freely running in the (killing) fields rather than being stuck in the rotten mud for months, it missed the terrible fate of the overwhelming majority, condemned to die without redeeming heroic actions.

Fear [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on October 18, 2015 by xi'an

Last time I was in Edinburgh for an ICMS conference, I bought this book, Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, from the nice nearby bookstore, out of a pile of novels about World War I. This was in 2014, “celebrating” the start of the “Great” War… Although 1914-1918 is a century ago, WWI was quite a presence during my childhood, from official ceremonies to history books, to neighbours and relatives who had fought in the war. Like my old neighbour who had been a sapper, fought at Chemin des Dames, and had some schnarpel left under his skin that he would keep till his death. And I somewhat picked this book by chance for its back-cover summary, its tale of plain honesty about the meaningless war in the French trenches, surviving as a “poilu” for the four years the bloody was lasted and facing fear and pitiful superiors by accepting death as a most likely outcome. I had not realised then that the book was actually written in French by a Frenchman and recently (most beautifully) translated into English! And that it was the same writer who had written the arch-famous Clochemerle novels.

“We all have a fund of luck (we like to believe) and if you draw on it for too long there will be nothing left. Of course there is no law to this and everything comes down to probabilities.”

I think it is actually better I did not realise this until late, because I did not particularly like Clochemerle when I read it (close to 40 years ago!), with its easy jokes and caricatures. This novel is just fabulous and I am surprised it is not more well-known in France. The reference novel for the “Grande Guerre” is usually quoted as being Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgeles, even though it is much less critical of the establishment than the vitriolic Fear which often adopts anarchist tones to analyse this bloodbath from another era (?). Just as in Wooden Crosses and the fantastic Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the book insists on the intense camaraderie between base soldiers, against superiors and suicidal missions, but, as suggested by its title, it also digs very deeply in the psychology of the foot soldiers when faced with almost certain death. And acknowledges from the start the constant fear, which would make the book quite controversial when it got published in 1930. A truly remarkable book I wish I had read years ago, when my old neighbour was still alive. (The New York Times published a much more interesting review about a year ago.)